Chris Froome returns amongst heavyweight field in Catalonia

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Madrid (AFP)

A stellar cast headed by Chris Froome will battle it out at the seven-stage Tour of Catalonia from Monday in an early season indicator as to who is favourite to ride to victory at the Tour de France in July.

Defending Tour de France champion Froome will be joined by fellow Grand Tour winners Alberto Contador, Nairo Quintana and Fabio Aru.

Froome will be supported by Sky teammate Geraint Thomas fresh from his Paris-Nice victory with Teejay van Garderen and Joaquim Rodriguez also amongst an extremely strong field.

"The level of the line-up can only be matched, probably, by the Tour de France," Contador told his team Saxo-Tinkoff's website.

"There are so many rivals that there isn't any in particular that can be singled out because virtually all teams will bring a favourite, who will be flanked by a very strong squad."

Contador narrowly missed out to Thomas by four seconds to take second place in the Paris-Nice last week.

The Spaniard's chances of victory were dashed by the cancellation of the third stage due to snow and he believes the after-effects of catching a cold could hamper his chances in Catalonia.

"I hope to have totally recovered at the start, even if it might cost me a bit more in the first days," added Contador.

"However, I have a good foundation fitness and I trust my body will respond well."

Froome races for first time in Europe this season after beginning his year with victory at the Herald Sun Tour in Australia last month.

Likewise, Quintana has had a quiet start to the year with third in the Tour of San Luis and fourth in Colombian championships.

Both are expected to renew their rivalry as Froome held off the Movistar rider on a dramatic final day of last year's Tour de France on two long and steep mountain finishes on Wednesday and Thursday which should prove decisive.

Italian Aru also builds up his preparations for a tilt at the Tour de France later in the year as he leads Astana with teammate Vincenzo Nibali targeting a home victory in the Giro d'Italia instead.

Stages:

Stage 1: Calella - Calella (175.8 km)

Stage 2: Mataro - Olot (178.7 km)

Stage 3: Gerona - La Molina (172.1 km)

Stage 4: Baga - Port Aine (172.2 km)

Stage 5: Rialp - Valls (187.2 km)

Stage 6: Sant Joan Despi - Vilanova i la Geltru (197.2 km)

Stage 7: Barcelona - Barcelona (136.4 km)